A Lewis S. Mills High School student who was barred from running for class office after she called administrators a derogatory term on an Internet blog is accusing top school officials of violating her free speech rights.
Avery Doninger, a senior at the school in Burlington this fall, was removed as class secretary in the controversy last May. She is asking a state judge to order the school superintendent and the principal to reinstate her as secretary of the Class of 2008 and allow her to run for re-election in September.
Lauren Doninger of Burlington, the 16-year-old student's mother, filed a lawsuit Monday on her daughter's behalf in Superior Court in New Britain.
The case highlights the tension between a school's need to maintain discipline and the rights of students to free expression.
It comes in the wake of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month concerning an Alaska student who hung a banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" during a school-related rally. The 5-4 decision put tighter limits on students' free speech. The justices ruled against that teenager because the banner's message could be interpreted as promoting drug use.
In the Lewis Mills student's case, according to Doninger's lawyer, Jon L. Schoenhorn, the student had a right to express her opinion in a public forum outside of school-sponsored activities. He cited a ruling from the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal appeals in Connecticut, New York and Vermont, that prevented school administrators from punishing students for expression that took place off school grounds.
The Doningers say Principal Karissa Niehoff and Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz violated Avery Doninger's constitutional right to free speech when the two officials punished her for what she wrote April 24 in a blog entry on her home computer, complaining that a battle of the bands-type jam session at the school had been canceled.
Doninger referred to school administrators as "douchbags" (sic) when she posted the entry on livejournal.com, a virtual community where users can write web logs, diaries or journals.
Although the Doningers say Avery was wrong to use that word and the girl has apologized for it, they accuse school officials of overreacting.
"The school had no business reaching into our home to decide how she should be disciplined," Lauren Doninger, an addiction studies and psychology professor at Gateway Community College in New Haven, said during a press conference Monday in Hartford at Schoenhorn's office.
Schwartz is out of the country and could not be reached for comment. Niehoff also could not be reached for comment. Other school officials did not return calls for comment.
Niehoff told WVIT-TV in May that school leadership positions are a privilege, not a right.
"When kids are in a position of privilege, there are certain standards of behavior we expect them to uphold," she told Channel 30. "Our position stands for respect. We're just hoping kids appreciate the seriousness of any communication over the Internet."
Avery Doninger had been elected Class of 2008 secretary in her freshman, sophomore and junior years. She said she aspires to become a student activities director at a preparatory school or college.
The girl, who will be 17 next month and is working at a Subway sandwich shop this summer, said she works hard at her studies and had no previous problems with school administrators.
On April 24, according to the lawsuit, school officials told Doninger and the other student council officers that a "Jamfest" scheduled for April 28 could not be held in the school auditorium because there was not a staff member available to run new equipment. The event is an annual battle of the bands organized by the student council in which local musicians perform for the community, according to the complaint.
Another student council member sent an electronic mail message that day to high school parents and students, encouraging them to call the school board for Region 10, which covers Harwinton and Burlington, to express support for Jamfest. Doninger was among four students to sign that message, but it was drafted and sent by another student, according to the lawsuit.
When Doninger encountered Niehoff in the school hallway, the principal scolded her for the message and said the superintendent was angered by it and that Jamfest might be canceled, the lawsuit says.
Later that night, about 9:25 p.m., Doninger used her personal computer to post the entry on the blog.
"Jamfest is canceled due to the douchbags in central office. Here is an e-mail that we sent out to a ton of people and asked them to forward to everyone in their address book to help get support for Jamfest," she wrote. "Basically, because we sent it out, Paula Schwartz is getting a TON of phone calls and e-mails and such. We have so much support and we really appreciate it. However, she got pissed off and decided to just cancel the whole thing all [sic] together."
A few weeks later, on May 17, Doninger went to the school office to accept her nomination for class secretary. Niehoff handed a copy of the blog entry to Doninger and told her to apologize to Schwartz, tell her mother about the blog entry, resign as class secretary and withdraw her candidacy, according to the lawsuit.
Avery said she apologized and told her mother, but would not resign or withdraw. Niehoff then dismissed her from the post and barred her from running for the office, according to the lawsuit.
"This is something I felt was really necessary I stand up for," Doninger said Monday.
Jeremy Paul, dean of the UConn Law School, says the outcomes of recent student free speech cases have varied greatly depending on individual facts.
The law, he explained, is still blurry when it comes to the significance, weight and influence of communications over the Internet, such as content from blogs.
At issue, Paul said, is not just the severity of the punishment and whether the consequences were outlined by a particular school policy, but whether web-based content and opinions generated and distributed off school grounds can merit a punishment by school officials.
"The existence of the Internet basically poses a challenge to the fundamental distinction between on-school property or off-school property," Paul said.
While he could not predict the court's verdict, Paul added, "I think all of us who believe in free speech values ... would have liked to see a slightly more moderate response on the part of the school officials."
An Associated Press report is included.
Contact Daniel P. Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.